Midway, a Protected Area, Is Also Underfunded

Nesting Layson Albatross i i

Albatross parents take turns sitting on their egg and traveling far out to sea to feed. Biologists say the birds are serene incubators. They can sit on an egg for weeks at a time when it’s their turn. They also take turns feeding their chicks until they’re ready to fledge. Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Nesting Layson Albatross

Albatross parents take turns sitting on their egg and traveling far out to sea to feed. Biologists say the birds are serene incubators. They can sit on an egg for weeks at a time when it’s their turn. They also take turns feeding their chicks until they’re ready to fledge.

Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Albatross Mating Dance i i

The albatross engage in mating dances that seem to be elaborately choreographed. Mark McDonald/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hide caption

itoggle caption Mark McDonald/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Albatross Mating Dance

The albatross engage in mating dances that seem to be elaborately choreographed.

Mark McDonald/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Laysan Albatross i i

The Layson Albatross come to Midway, the world's largest breeding ground for the birds. Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Laysan Albatross

The Layson Albatross come to Midway, the world's largest breeding ground for the birds.

Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Layson Albatross i i

Most of the world's Laysan Abatross return to Midway every year to meet their lifelong mates and breed. Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Layson Albatross

Most of the world's Laysan Abatross return to Midway every year to meet their lifelong mates and breed.

Alex Wegmann/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

President Bush got rare praise from environmentalists earlier this year when he protected the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine national monument. Now the government is making plans to send tourists to Midway see the amazing array of wildlife on the island. But some conservationists are complaining that the government isn’t doing enough to fix a threat to one of the island’s most flamboyant residents: Laysan Albatross.

Midway, a cluster of three islets in the northwest Hawaiian Island chain, is the world's largest breeding ground for Laysan Albatross.

Each year in late autumn, most of the world's albatross return to Midway Island, meet their lifelong mates and settle down to nest in the same spot as the year before. The parents take turns incubating the egg and flying out to sea to feed. Meanwhile, young birds practice mating dances.

"It's a spectacular scene. They have a bunch of ritualized movements they shake their head and whistle. It's really fun," said Beth Flint, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who’s on the island leading a count of the birds.

The scene would be idyllic if it weren't for the threat faced by thousands of the Laysan albatross chicks when they hatch. The chicks eat lead-based paint that's chipping off of World War II-era military buildings.

"Their wings become sort of paralyzed and they can't use them. And we call that droop wing. At the end of the breeding season, the parents will leave and expect that their chicks will, within a few weeks, fledge and follow behind them. But these chicks will never be able to fly and they'll never fledge so they'll just stay on the island and starve to death," says toxicologist Myra Finkelstein, who visited the island four times in recent years to study the problem.

Finkelstein says that about 10,000 chicks are poisoned each year.

"It's very sad that these chicks are ingesting this lead-based paint, which is actually a very easy problem to fix," she adds.

An environmental group, the American Bird Conservancy, has been pushing the federal government to fix the problem for years.

"We feel that, because this is a national monument, the government should take the responsibility and clean up the lead to protect the birds. Having a national wildlife refuge in a national monument where species that are recognized as important by the U.S. government are being killed on a regular basis just seems completely unreasonable," says Jennifer Arnold, who directs the group's seabird program.

It's not a new problem. When the Navy packed up and left the area 10 years ago, it dismantled hundreds of buildings and cleaned up a lot of lead paint. But it left more than 100 buildings behind to be used as part of a new wildlife refuge run by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Many of those buildings have fallen into disrepair, and the lead paint is chipping and peeling in the harsh tropical climate.

"A couple of years ago, we estimated that it would cost about $5 million to remove all the lead paint," says Marshall Jones, the agency's deputy chief.

But the agency hasn't been able to get its hands on that kind of money, even after Midway became part of a national monument. Refuge managers have tried interim fixes. They stretched drop cloths around some of the building to try to trap paint chips.

"Some of the fabric we used has started to deteriorate in the sun in the weather. And furthermore, in some cases the birds decided to nest right on top of the fabric," Jones said.

And their young kept eating the paint chips.

So the refuge managers came up with a plan to have island staff moonlight as cleanup crews. Starting in August, four workers a day use paint scrappers, special vacuums and pressure washers to clean the buildings. At the rate they're going, Jones says it will take several years to complete the cleanup.

"We're very concerned about this. We know there's mortality, but the bird population as a whole is doing extremely well in spite of this," Jones adds.

Last year, almost half a million albatross pairs nested on the island. And right now, volunteers are busy counting how many have returned this year.

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